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5 Sneaky Tricks Grocery Stores Use to Make You Spend More Money

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You go in for a loaf of bread, and you come out with $100 worth of groceries. How does it happen? Grocery store psychology. From the layout to the music, stores use a number of strategies to manipulate your senses and encourage spending. When you know what to watch out for, you can make sure you stick to your budget.

1. “OPEN THE WALLET” PRICING

You’ve seen this in action: those grocery store endcaps that advertise an amazing deal on gummy bears. Do you need gummy bears? Probably not. It doesn’t matter; low prices get you in the mood to spend.

“[This] is the technique of pricing items really cheap in the front display aisles at retail and grocery stores to get your brain excited about saving a bunch of money,” says Kyle James, a retail expert and founder of RatherBeShopping.com. “It’s psychological warfare and your money is at risk. Namely, spending money on stuff you had no intention of buying but simply can’t pass up as the ‘deal’ is just too good.”

James points out that Target infamously uses this tactic (think of their bargain bins at the front of the store). “Open the wallet” pricing totally explains the Target “we just need one thing” phenomenon.

2. MAZE-LIKE LAYOUTS

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Grocery stores don’t design their layouts haphazardly—a whole heap of psychology goes into it. For example, ever feel like you have to walk miles to get to the dairy fridge? That's because you practically do. National Geographic’s The Plate explains:

Dairy departments are almost invariably located as far from the entrance as possible, ensuring that customers—most of whom will have at least one dairy item on their lists—will have to walk the length of the store, passing a wealth of tempting products, en route to the milk, eggs, cheese, and yogurt.

It’s the same idea as the “Boomerang Effect.” With this strategy, grocers place popular items and brands in the middle of store aisles so that customers have to walk past other, unneeded items to reach them, no matter which direction they’re coming from. In other words, grocery stores make it purposely difficult to simply get in and out with what you need. They do everything they can to lure you with their products.

“If you're only running in for milk and eggs, don’t grab a cart or basket,” James suggests. “Instead, carry your milk and eggs in your hands. This way you won’t be tempted to throw impulse purchases into your cart. You can’t buy what you can’t carry.”

3. CHARM PRICING

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Charm pricing is another notorious grocery store trick, and James explains what happens when we see this in action.

“Whenever you see a product priced at $29.99 or $9.98, the store is attempting to ‘charm’ your brain by marking prices just below a round number,” James says. “Because our brains are trained to read from left to right, the first digit is the one that sticks in our head and the number we use to decide if the ‘price is right.’ This phenomena is known as the 'left-digit effect' and studies have shown that it absolutely works and has a big impact on our buying decisions.”

He offers an easy trick for combating this. Whenever you see a price ending with .99 or .98, round up, then decide if it’s a good deal. “By knowing exactly what these stores are trying to do, you can walk by these ‘trick your brain’ displays and stay focused on the reason you walked in.”

4. PLACING EXPENSIVE ITEMS AT EYE LEVEL

Courtesy of Cornell University Food & Brand Lab

If you’re looking to save money, look down. Many grocery stores place their most expensive items at eye level and place the bargain buys and generic brands on the bottom shelves. This helps guide you toward the pricier items, since they’re literally right in front of your face.

However, walk down the cereal aisle and you’ll probably notice that flashy brands like Cap’n Crunch are placed on lower shelves. In this case, stores are hoping to catch the eyes of younger consumers—namely, your kids. Research from Cornell found a link between eye contact (in this case, between children and spokes-characters) and consumers’ positive feelings toward a product. For example, here’s how consumers responded to a strategically placed box of Trix cereal:

Findings show that brand trust was 16% higher and the feeling of connection to the brand was 28% higher when the rabbit made eye contact. Furthermore, participants indicated liking Trix better, compared to another cereal, when the rabbit made eye contact. This finding shows that cereal box spokes-characters that make eye contact may increase positive feelings towards the product and encourage consumers to buy it.

To combat this trick, look around at all of your product options, top and bottom shelves included. Simply being aware of this strategy will go a long way toward blocking its effectiveness.

5. BACKGROUND MUSIC

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Music seems harmless enough, but it’s another highly effective tool for getting customers to spend more. A now-famous 1982 study published by the American Marketing Association [PDF] found that sales increase and people spend more time shopping in stores playing music. The type of music matters, though. The study reported:

The tempo of instrumental background music can significantly influence both the pace of in-store traffic flow and the daily gross sales volume purchased by customers, at least in some situations. In this study the average gross sales increased from $12,112.35 for the fast tempo music to $16,740.23 for the slow tempo music. This is an average increase of $4,627.39 per day, or a 38.2% increase in sales volume.

Of course, those results only apply to that specific study, but the point is: There’s research that shows music can indeed influence shopping behavior. And you can bet grocery stores use this to their advantage.

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ATM Fees Reach a New Record High
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You have good reason to flinch every time you withdraw cash from an out-of-network ATM. The cash machine operator and the bank each hit you with a separate fee for these withdrawals, and both types set record highs this year, according to a new Bankrate survey.

In Phoenix and Atlanta, grabbing cash from an out-of-network ATM will set you back more than $5. But even the cheapest metro area isn’t actually much less expensive: In San Francisco, the average fees are now $3.90. “The national average is $4.57, which means stopping at an out-of-network ATM for $20 will cost nearly 23 percent in fees,” says Greg McBride, CFA, Bankrate's senior vice president and chief financial analyst.

To skirt the fees, stay in network. Virtually any bank will let you withdraw money from its own ATMs, of course. But if you want easy, low-cost access to more cash machines, ask your bank if they participate in a larger ATM network. Some do, to provide their customers with more widespread access.

While ATM fees climbed higher in 2016, one type of bank fee actually broke its 17-year streak of increases: overdraft fees. The average is now $33.07 (yikes!), but that's 0.1 percent below last year’s average. It’s probably too soon to celebrate the downward trend, says McBride. Overdraft fee increases still outnumbered decreases by 5 to 1 in the national survey.

McBride’s best advice for avoiding the hefty penalty? “Sign up for email and text alerts that let you know when your balance is getting low, so you can proactively move money into the account,” he says. “And keep tabs on your available account balance through online and mobile banking—particularly before initiating transactions.”

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Which State Has the Most Millennials Still Living at Home?
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Escaping your parents’ home doesn’t seem to have quite the same urgency it once did. According to Time, recent Census data indicates that a substantial number of Millennials—typically considered to be those 18 to 34 years of age—are choosing to remain in their childhood residences, with one state in particular crowding out the rest.

The winner? New Jersey, which has just under 47 percent of that demographic living at home. Eastern state neighbors New York and Connecticut each have roughly 40 percent choosing to stay in the nest, a significant spike from the national average of around 33 percent. That’s up from 23 percent in 2000. (The state with the lowest percentage of Millennials rooming with their 'rents? North Dakota, with just 14.1 percent.)

It can be difficult to extrapolate why some states have more clingy kids than others. The price of real estate might be one explanation (rent is much more expensive in New Jersey and New York than it is out West); the trend of Millennials getting married later in life might be another. Without the need for their own mortgage, utility bills, and consumer spending, it’s possible that the homebodies may even be contributing to an economic downturn.

Then again, who can resist free laundry? “There’s the comfort of someone to help you out at all times,” college student Irsia Khan told USAToday.com in June 2016. “Having your meals ready and your laundry done for you takes the load off on the rest of the things you go through in college.”

[h/t Time]

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